Were I to list all the places where cancer might change my life, it’s unlikely I’d include Warrington. It’s even less likely I’d plan for this revolution to occur in a charmless Premier Inn.
It was Valentines Day, and by agreement, I was miles away from my significant other. I’d left a Waitrose fish pie in the freezer, and was set to throw myself on the mercy of a prefab pub/diner that lurked at the far end of the hotel car park.
What I didn’t reckon with was that February 14 is the one dismal mid-winter evening where tired long-term couples seethe across tables. A stressed out voice agreed to accept a party of one, but only if I came right away. At 5.35. They would ‘need the table back’ at 6.30.
I perused the ‘Lovers’ Menu’ surrounded by pink balloons, silver streamers and enjoyed the musical styling of 80s power-pop giants Air Supply. A smiling lad named Wayne mentioned how the ‘chicken burger’ was quick to make. I didn’t dare ask about the optional coleslaw, in case the extra seconds needed to open the tub caused a kitchen melt-down.
The clock was ticking. I felt I owed it to Wayne to eat like someone who’d not seen food in a fortnight. Nobody suggested the desert menu, Or coffee. The bill came as I abandoned my knife and fork.
Back in the most generic hotel room, there was little to do. I drank tea, infused with the tang of not quite enough UHT milk, flicked through TV channels, recalled the 56k dial-up modem days courtesy of free Wi-Fi, and eventually decided on a bath.
And that was when my life changed.
When first I noticed how much bigger my lest testicle (let’s call it Ben) was in comparison to the right (Bill), I tried to work out how it could have happened. We have a still puppy-like golden Labrador, who greets each day by launching all 27 kilos of himself at crotch-level. The train journey to Warrington saw me squashed into a train seat next to a man who was all elbows, perhaps I’d sat on and squashed Ben.
I dared a second feel. Bill was soft, floating, innocent. Ben was hard, huge and more or less saying ‘uh-oh‘.
I did what any grown man might. Dried myself off, made more tea, watched Eastenders, and then – when the fear became too much – phoned home, and told my other half what I’d found, listening for any hint of fear in his voice, and feeling flattened when I heard it. After hanging up, I cried with self-pity for an hour. At some point, sleep took over.
The next day, everything seemed different. It took a while before I dared check again, and I swear Ben felt smaller. Still, I managed to get a phone call with someone from my GP surgery. He wanted to see me the next day. And so, I put on a smile and hid the fear at the back of my head and got on with my working day.
Here comes the cancer science part
The GP I saw – a locum, of course – had a look and feel. He refused to use the c-word, and not once did we make eye contact. Nervous and jumpy, he looked out of the window, and anywhere but at me. Blood tests were ordered, and the promise of a referral. I was being put on an urgent referral path – I’d be seen within two weeks.
‘So is it cancer?’ I said, determined to get a straight answer.
‘We need to rule things out,’ he bluffed, his eyes fixed on the wall behind me.
I went to the bloods clinic the same day, and crossed my fingers.
That evening, a text arrived ‘blood test results received, no further action’. What did that mean? Was I cancer free? Ben was still huge. Did no further action mean things were so bad, I should get my affairs in order? Did I even have affairs to get in order? It was Friday, and so I faced a weekend of worry.
The Monday-morning GP receptionist sounded bored as she read out loud my blood test results. Everything is fine, no tumour markers, no cancer, nothing. So what now? She couldn’t say, and the doctor I saw last week had gone elsewhere to talk to other walls and windows. I felt abandoned.
I somehow worked my way through a day of meetings and calls, breaking down between them to rant and rail, until 4pm, when I finally spoke to someone at the Royal Sussex County Hospital. I’d been bounced around their switchboard for over an hour and my temper was frayed. He spoke to me like he cared, he told me how he understood my fears and frustrations, and promised to help. I cried again.
Shit gets serious
Two days later, I showed someone else my toilet parts – a urologist – and he duly copped a feel. I made a lame joke about how I usually expect dinner before allowing such intimacy, and he didn’t smile. He told me it could be cancer.
Relief flooded through me. All I wanted was a name for whatever it was. Obviously, I’d read every crackpot Internet theory, but at last I knew what might be wrong with me. He explained there would be more scans, very soon, and explained what might happen if Bill needed to be removed. (Quick incision across the groin, a fumble, a yank, a snip and Bill would be gone – sorry for being graphic, probably should have warned you). We talked about testicular cancer survival rates, and how I was way outside the risk group at the age of 53. I nodded and smiled. I made jokes – it’s how I cope, I perform. My partner asked the sensible questions and took notes. I considered myself blessed to have him.
Ten days after Warrington, a woman chatted about the Beast from the East as she smeared my balls in gunk and then showed me photos of what she’d found. Ben, she admitted was a perfect specimen, the king of testicles. Rarely had she seen one so well-formed (I may have made this last bit up). Bill though, not so much. She wanted a second opinion.
That second opinion came fast. Half an hour later, a man in a pink hairnet asked if I could come back in on Wednesda. For surgery.
Two weeks after Warrington, an anesthetist explained how I might feel a bit sleepy. And then I woke, was given a cheese sandwich, a cup of tea and assured everything went well.
I texted and phoned the people who mattered – my other half was at home on dog watch, climbing walls with worry. I was to be discharged the same day. The only challenge was that I needed to prove I could have a wee, otherwise a catheter loomed. I drank more tea and water than felt right. No way was I being ruled out of skinny jeans. The second relief of the day came. And the first part of my journey ended.
Why am I telling you this?
I made a decision to share my cancer story and my experience because I was scared, and didn’t know what to expect. There are groups out there who know all there is to know about testicular cancer. Guys who have been through it, guys going through it, guys terrified that they’ve found a lump or something that doesn’t feel right. I’ll continue to talk about my journey until someone confirms I’ve become a cancer bore. If it helps just one person speak to one doctor, I’ll be happy.
Check ’em lads runs a Twitter and Facebook page, along with a bunch of video resources – and what these guys don’t know about the subject, isn’t worth knowing. The founder of this vital charity explains it thus: “I really just wanted advice and to talk to someone who had actually been through it. There were charities that offered help but I wanted someone who knew from personal experience.”
The NHS website also offers sane, simple advice, as does Cancer Research UK, and Macmillan. Beyond this, there are lots of smaller groups and sites, but avoid those forums run by idiots – the sort who are only too ready to tell you about how someone they knew died within two days or how it’s some form of some kind of God’s revenge on a lifestyle – they do exist.